FRAME is supporting a research project at the University of Birmingham and University of Warwick to develop a new invertebrate model to study ageing.
The charity said that with the human population living longer, research into healthy ageing and age-related diseases is becoming increasingly important.
Ageing is the gradual decline in physiological function of an organism over time which can lead to increased illness and disease, including in humans, cancer, Alzheimer’s disease and cardiovascular disease.
Studies into ageing often involve the use of rats and other vertebrate animals which increases the number of animals being used in scientific research.
FRAME encourages the use of humans and human models in medical research wherever possible.
The charity said that in some cases, however, research models are developed that use simpler invertebrate species. This is because most invertebrates are not protected by the law as they are not considered to have the same capacity to suffer as vertebrate species.
Using an invertebrate model can therefore offer an alternative to the use of a vertebrate species such as rats, dogs or pigs.
Dr Leda Mirbahai, Group Leader in Epigenetics at the University of Warwick and her team are studying ageing using the crustacean Daphnia magna (water fleas), a species only recently used to study ageing.
Previous studies have highlighted that the biochemical processes that contribute to ageing are generally conserved across organisms as part of the evolutionary process.
Dr Mirbahai said: “Currently, age-related illnesses are investigated separately, but given the shared link to ageing it would be prudent to target ageing and therefore potentially impact a majority of the age-related issues.
“Furthermore, health span has not increased in line with life span in our ageing populations.
“Therefore, more than ever it is becoming essential to reduce the growing gap between the two concepts and thus reduce the proportion of our life spent in poor health.
“However, to promote healthy ageing we must first understand how ageing works.”
FRAME has provided a grant to the team at the University of Birmingham to help continue their work in setting up a model using water fleas to specifically research the role of epigenetic factors, including DNA methylation in the ageing process.
Epigenetics is the study of factors that can cause a change in the expression of genes without altering the actual genetic sequence.
Dr Mirbahai and her team believe Daphnia have many unique characteristics that will aid ageing research, such as short generation time, naturally occurring varieties with diverse lifespans (from a few days to several months), regeneration capacity with continued cell renewal throughout their life and a reproductive cycle that allows populations of clones to be produced so the researcher can maintain the same genotype (DNA) across the population.
Most importantly, DNA methylation, a known hallmark of ageing, has been detected in Daphnia.
Julia Constantinou, a PhD student in Dr Mirbahai’s group, based at University of Birmingham has developed, characterised and measured specific ageing markers in Daphnia throughout their lifespan.
The team are now in the process of genetically manipulating the lifespan of Daphnia with the funding received from FRAME. This will enable the group to link specific genetic, and most importantly, epigenetic changes with ageing rate and physical markers of ageing.
FRAME’s Scientific Liaison Officer Amy Beale said: “The development of this exciting Daphnia based model of ageing in the UK will help enhance our knowledge of regulation of lifespan and health span, and ultimately may be used to further our understanding of promoting healthy ageing without the use of larger mammalian species.”